Before the 2018 Winter Olympics, the South Korean government asked the 12 restaurants in the Pyeongchang area that sell dog meat to stop doing so during the event, offering subsidies to make the request more palatable.
But most of those restaurants haven’t stopped the practice, citing customer demand. That has sparked criticism among some international visitors to the games. The attention has also focused new debate around the practice of eating dogs, as well as what some Koreans complain is the Western media’s unfair fixation on the issue.
Here, we take a closer look at the controversial issue of dog meat, in Korea and around the world.
Is dog meat legal in South Korea?
There are no legal consequences for selling dog meat in South Korea, though it is officially classified as “detestable,” along with snake meat. Agence France-Presse reports that South Koreans are increasingly starting to view dogs as pets, so the tradition is declining, in many cases becoming taboo, especially among younger generations.
South Koreans kill an estimated two million dogs each year for food, consuming 100,000 metric tons of dog meat, according to the Animal Welfare Institute in Washington, D.C. The Humane Society International estimates that 30 million dogs a year are killed for food around the world. In parts of East Asia, the practice has been common for centuries.
Is dog meat legal in other countries?
Taiwan was the first country in Asia to ban the purchase or consumption of dog (and cat) meat. The country banned the slaughter of dogs and cats and sale of their meat in 1998. But a thriving underground market then emerged. In April 2017, Taiwan passed a stricter law that called for the punishment of those caught consuming the meat, with a fine up to $8,500. The country also increased the punishment for causing deliberate harm to a dog or cat, including up to $65,000 in fines and two years of jail time.
But globally, there remains a lot of legal gray areas when it comes to killing dogs for food. Even in countries where it is illegal, the practice may be widespread and go unpunished.
“While not always legal, the countries that allow it to continue are Indonesia, Vietnam, China, South Korea, Cambodia, Laos, and the Philippines—the latter only for religious festivals,” says Jill Robinson, founder and CEO of the Animals Asia Foundation.
However, there are also signs the practice may be declining in popularity. A 2016 poll in China estimated that almost 70 percent of the country’s residents had never tried dog meat. A 2014 poll in South Korea showed that the vast majority of people rarely ate dog meat. Most young South Koreans who had eaten it said they did so because of family pressure from older generations.
Does it only happen in Asia?
Nope. People have eaten dogs all over the world. According to archaeological evidence, some Native American groups were eating dogs thousands of years before Columbus landed in the New World. For example, in 2011, a scientific paper described a dog bone found in the contents of preserved human feces in southwest Texas that was over 9,200 years old.
While most people in the West stopped eating dogs centuries ago, desperation often still led explorers like Roald Amundsen and his team to eat some of their dogs. In 1912, as the exhausted, freezing team approached the South Pole, they remembered stories of hunters in Greenland eating some of their sled dogs in winter, and followed suit. Amundsen later said the dog meat was delicious.
In America, killing and eating dogs is still legal in most states, though it is hard to pinpoint how often the practice occurs today—since dogs are often thought of as much-beloved pets, there is a social taboo around eating them. It is illegal for U.S. slaughterhouses to sell dog meat on a commercial basis, but a person can request it for their own use in 44 states. Legislation has been introduced that would outlaw the practice entirely, but it has yet to pass.
Isn’t eating dogs a cultural practice?
While some Native Americans ate dogs, others considered that strictly taboo. Some of those groups who ate dogs did so for sacred purposes. George Catlin, a 19th-century artist, made a painting of his experience participating in a Sioux Indian friendship ceremony, in which a special meal of dog meat was served. The ceremony was intended to celebrate the bonds between members of the tribe through a sacrifice of their most faithful canine companions. Catlin wrote in his journal: “Knowing the spirit in which it was given, we could not but treat it respectfully, and receive it as anything but a high and marked compliment.”
In some Asian countries, particularly in Southeast Asia, there remains a thriving market for dog meat, with many people claiming it is part of their cultural tradition. Some people believe dog meat can cure various ailments or impart a beneficial “warm energy.” Others are turning to dog meat as a source of cheap protein.
In Indonesia, the booming dog meat industry largely operates in the shadows, as the government doesn’t regulate the practice. But experts say the industry is growing. As more people there benefit from economic development, they can afford to eat some meat. Dog meat is often cheaper than beef or chicken, making it more accessible.
In China, interest in dog meat may be waning, Robinson notes, as more and more people start keeping the animals as pets. Still, about 10 million dogs are consumed in the country each year, especially during cold winter months, when the meat is believed to warm the body.
Has there been backlash against criticism of dog meat?
According to Robinson, the issue of dog meat in South Korea also came into focus during the Seoul Summer Olympics of 1988. As some in the international community pressured the country’s residents to stop eating dog and cat meat, many South Koreans accused them of “cultural imperialism.”
“Local people who objected to being told what to do in their own country slaughtered and ate yet more dogs, to protest against the ‘interfering imperialists abroad,’” says Robinson.
Catie Cryar, a senior media liaison for PETA, says some young people in China and Korea whose parents eat dog meat are staging their own form of backlash by becoming vegan, in part because of the outrage they’ve seen about the dog meat trade on social media.
“Our PETA Asia team just returned from Pyeongchang, and loved seeing all the delicious vegan options there,” Cryar added.
How has the dog meat debate evolved over time?
Global pressure to stop the dog meat trade has continued for decades, Robinson says, but the shift within Asian countries’ own populations has happened more recently.
“I'd say it's been in the past 10 to 15 years or so that the local groups have really been vociferous in their own countries,” she says.
Animals Asia worked with local governments in China, for example, to show that dogs being sold for meat are now often sourced illegally, because Robinson says there are no large-scale dog meat farms in China today.
“Almost 100 percent of the dogs today are stolen from the streets and from people's homes, rather than the trade relying on the dog farms there of the past,” she says.
Robinson also says the Chinese government is increasingly convinced of the argument that the cross-province transfer of dogs can be a vector for bacterial and disease transmission.
“There is a social element to this, too, with the public understanding that the dog thieves are causing social disharmony by stealing people's ‘personal property,’” she says.
Isn’t there a famous (or infamous) dog meat festival?
Yes, the Lychee and Dog Meat Festival in Yulin, China, is an annual festival founded in 2010. Garnering many headlines around the world, the festival is known for slaughtering thousands of dogs each year. In 2017, the city of Yulin was rumored to be considering banning the festival from selling dog meat, after international criticism. But dog-meat vendors put pressure on the government and no ban went through, with the festival happening as usual.
Millions of people have signed petitions calling for the end of the annual event. The festival also has its defenders on economic and cultural grounds, however, making it a flashpoint in the international debate over dog meat.